State's planned delivery of bottled water, filters in Benton Harbor met with skepticism

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The concerns raised by environmental groups over the lead crisis in Benton Harbor have not yet been addressed by the Environmental Protection Agency but residents will begin to have free bottled water available next week and wider access to water filters.

The EPA recently received a scathing emergency petition criticizing the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and the city of Benton Harbor for failing to provide residents with safe drinking water after three straight years of lead exceedances.

EGLE officials have agreed to distribute bottled water Monday and better educate residents about how to use water filters. The petition was filed earlier this month by groups like the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, the Benton Harbor Community Water Council and other organizations.

"I'm optimistic that the EPA will do its job and intervene and make sure that the emergency in Benton Harbor is properly addressed," said Cyndi Roper, the senior policy advocate for the Natural Resource Defense Council, one of the petitioners. "We think it's extremely important that EPA is deeply engaged in these conversations, they are taking them seriously."

The EPA has yet to respond to the petitioner's demand that it review how EGLE came up with its corrosion control for the Benton Harbor water system and issue a federal order establishing the optimal corrosion control treatment requirements.

"EPA is in active communication with concerned residents, community groups, Michigan EGLE, and local officials regarding the drinking water in Benton Harbor," EPA spokeswoman Taylor Gillespie said in a statement. "This week, EPA met with petitioners and state officials to discuss the community’s concerns and how to work together to expeditiously address the drinking water needs of the community. We are carefully considering the issues and concerns raised and are closely monitoring lead-related health issues in Benton Harbor."

"Additionally, Benton Harbor was one of 10 communities to participate in roundtable discussions with EPA highlighting the experience of the city with lead in drinking water as part of EPA’s review of the Lead and Copper Rule revisions."

In recent sampling periods, lead levels have been higher than in the initial lead exceedance in the fall of 2018. That year eight homes tested above 15 parts per billion and the highest was only 60 ppb. In 2021 11 homes tested above 15 pbb with the highest coming in at 889 ppb.

The petitioners shared a Zoom conference call with EPA and EGLE officials Wednesday to discuss the emergency aspects in Benton Harbor, with EGLE taking the lead on filter and bottled water distribution.

Environmental groups also asked for a filter study to verify that certified filters are effective for reducing lead in Benton Harbor water treated with the blended polyphosphate corrosion inhibitor that hasn't appeared to be working.

In an interview with The Detroit News this week, EGLE Director Liesl Clark said the state is committed to bringing safe drinking water to Benton Harbor. And that includes, she said, bottled water and filter distribution and getting the lead pipes out of the ground.

"We think there's an important sense of urgency and that's why we're talking about these actions steps that are being taken immediately of making sure that doors are knocked (on), that filters are in place and that water is distributed in the meantime and that we get the lead service lines out," Clark said.

"There's going to be a renewed effort to make sure that every door is knocked on, (water) filters to make sure everyone's got a functioning filter," she said. "In the meantime, there's going to be bottled water available to community members while we make sure the filters have been distributed and that people understand how to use them."

Nick Leonard, the executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, said there are still unanswered questions regarding how many households will get bottled water.

"We know that things will be moving forward next week. We just want to make sure that those things are (as) efficient and effective as they can be," Leonard said, adding that he hopes the EPA will hold EGLE accountable down the line. "How I think about accountability is obviously, how did this happen and how can we make sure that it doesn't happen again."

Regina Strong, the environmental justice public advocate for EGLE, said the state is committed to "move forward with an education campaign that's really going to help the community understand" how water filters work and are installed correctly.

"We all know that Benton Harbor is an environmental justice community with a lot of challenges and one of the challenges can oftentimes reflect on how well things get out to the community," she said. "But as we've heard from the community, they feel like that's not enough."

Rev. Edward Pinkney, the president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, said he needs more details on how EGLE will handle the bottled water and filter distribution.

"I think it was more damage control. It sounds good, we're going to supply bottled water and we're going to a blitz with the water filters," Pinkney said. "If you give residents a water filter, you've got to educate them. We can't go there and just give them a water filter and tell them to read the directions. That is not going to work."

Pinkney said the state and county officials failed to tell residents that filters don't work with hot water and how to look out for signs when the filter isn't working or needs to be replaced.

"Talk don't really mean nothing. Action is what needs to take place," he said.